Dementia affects more than 400,000 people in Australia. Inspired by the powerful effects of music in nursing homes, Lorna Prendergast undertook a Master of Ageing degree at the University of Melbourne. She graduated in July at the age of 90.
Prendergast enrolled in the degree after watching an ABC science program about music and dementia. She completed the course online from the Victorian town of Bairnsdale, overcoming technological hurdles that would challenge many others.
Music technology provides sound opportunities
Prendergast studied the effects of music therapy in nursing homes, including the delivery of personalised playlists using music technology.
“From my research, I found a number of studies where it was suggested that thirty minutes a day of listening to personal music was very productive. Using an iPod with a headphone has proved very effective both in nursing homes and home care. Recently, a headphone has become available where a memory card containing a personal playlist can be inserted into the headphone and does not need to be connected to an iPod.”
Music technology has changed a lot throughout Prendergast’s life. In an interview with ABC Classic she recalled a time when it was common to make your own music:
“Many family homes had a piano, most men carried a mouth organ in their pocket, the accordion and violin were also popular as was the guitar and the ukulele. In those days people made their own music. It was only when the wireless hit the airwaves that people listened more to music rather than make their own.”
The importance of music therapists
Though music technology helps deliver music therapy, Prendergast stresses the importance of having music therapists in care facilities to select and monitor the effects of music:
“In nursing homes I found that music helped calm patients who may be feeling aggressive and it generally gave them joy. It is exceedingly important that the music played be of their choice, songs that brings back memories and emotions which help them to recall their past. It seems to bring back their identity and gain respect from others which also helps include them in the group around them rather than being left to feel isolated.
“It would be good if more nursing homes employed a music therapist because they know how to get people singing and can also detect if any song gives bad vibes. By that I mean that a song liked by most people could remind someone of a bad episode in their life and cause them distress. Carers nursing dementia patients at home also need guidance on developing playlists as music helps bring couples together and extends their time to reminisce.”
A life with music
Prendergast has nurtured a lifelong love of music and attends musicals whenever she visits the city from her Victorian town of Bairnsdale. She remembers a particularly musical trip to Vienna with her late husband Jim:
“Years ago, when Jim and I flew to Europe, we landed in Vienna where we had a few days of wonderful classical music. Violinists were playing in all of the restaurants where we enjoyed a slice of Sachertorte and delicious coffee. Then we were fortunate to attend two concerts, one was of Mozart’s works and the other one was magnificent at the Sofiensaal where we listened to many of the favourites that Strauss first played in the very room we were seated in. It was a wonderful evening. The conductor’s relaxed style was very engaging and the orchestra demonstrated their talent and enthusiasm for Johann Strauss’s music. The highlight for me was when we waltzed to The Blue Danube Waltz, unforgettable.”